All hail Queen Helen of Mirren! This sublime actress (Prime Suspect), who radiates sensuality and sharp wit in every role, hits a dazzling career high in Elizabeth I (Saturday, April 22, and Monday, April 24, at 8 pm/ET on HBO) as one of history's greatest characters.

This never-married monarch is a woman of mercurial emotions, as wily and waspish as she is needy. "I am made of cruel passions, and when the time is right, will so act on them as to astonish the world," she declares. Then amends herself: "I have love and compassion, too. And as I punish, so can I yearn."

Does she ever. By turns of the busy plot, this Elizabeth burns with desire, bristles with ambition, explodes in petulant anger, giggles in girlish delight and weeps in despair. Mirren is magnificent as she morphs from coquette to Cruella in a flash, a performance enhanced by Nigel Williams' elegant script and a splendid supporting cast. First among equals: Jeremy Irons at his most captivating as her dashing romantic soul mate and confidant, the Earl of Leicester.

This lavish two-part biography, which includes graphic scenes of torture and public mutilation, finds juicy drama in the collision of politics and private passion during the mature queen's turbulent 16th-century reign.

She adores Leicester but is unable to wed him; it ends sadly. Years later, she is smitten by his stepson, the reckless Earl of Essex (heartthrobby Hugh Dancy); it ends even worse. Alone in her twilight, Elizabeth muses, "The hardest thing to govern is the heart."

A little too greeting-card for my taste, but otherwise, Elizabeth I rules.

Life of Brian
This has been an unforgiving mid-season for offbeat shows mixing comedy and drama: The Book of Daniel, Love Monkey, the struggling Sons & Daughters. So I'll root for ABC's What About Brian (Mondays, 10 pm/ET), hoping it gets a chance to grow on me.

This romantic drama about a single guy (7th Heaven's appealing Barry Watson) stranded amid a sea of cute California couples is like a sunnier version of thirtysomething, lacking only the inspired casting, the insightful writing and the wrenching realism. (Brian even has a funky video-game workplace, reminiscent of Michael and Elliot's ad agency, and Brian's business partner is a harried dad in a stale marriage.)

Brian's the kind of nice guy who lets himself get trapped in bad relationships while he pines for his best friend's luscious fiancée. Watson goes through the paces with a slight look of panic.

He wonders where his life's going. I'm wondering that about What About Brian.